SLU news

Political deafness may impede transition to biological control

Published: 17 March 2023
Hand holding soil and a plant. Photo.

The EU Commission has proposed a new Regulation on the sustainable use of plant protection products. One of its goals is that chemical control has largely been replaced with biological control not later than 2030. The Regulation has good intentions, but also unsatisfactory definitions which unfortunately will impede the transition to sustainable plant production, says SLU-researchers who provide constructive feedback to the Commission in a new article.

EU’s Farm to Fork Strategy establishes that chemical pesticides should be reduced by 50 % and that at least 25 % of agricultural land should be under organic farming by 2030.

– For this to become reality, we need extraordinary investments into life sciences and agricultural technology as well as extreme dedication by scientists, industry, and farmers alike, says Johan Stenberg.

Biological control must be promoted

The use of living organisms for biological control of pests and pathogens is one tool that undoubtedly will play a major role in replacing chemical pesticides. The European Commission specifically points out biological control as a tool that must be promoted to reach the targets.

–  Recently, the implementing regulations related to microbial biocontrol agents under the plant protection products framework were revised. The aim is to stimulate approval of new microbial agents, leading to higher numbers of biocontrol products on the market, says Ingvar Sundh.

Arbitrary definition of biological control hampers progress

– However, our excitement over the proposed new regulation is dampened by the arbitrary definition of biological control used by the European Commission. Clearly, the European Commission did not listen to scientists when formulating its definition, which includes various unrelated elements with little connection to actual biocontrol, says Paul Becher.

The term biological control (or biocontrol) has been used for more than a century and scientists generally agree that biological control is the use of living agents to combat pests and pathogens. As such, biological control includes approaches that depend either on resident antagonistic agents (natural or conservation biological control) or added agents that are released to the cropping system (augmentative and classical biological control).

EU’s definition says that “biological control means the control of organisms harmful to plants or plant products using natural means of biological origin or substances identical to them, such as micro-organisms, semiochemicals, extracts from plant products, or invertebrate macro-organisms.”

The main problems with EU’s definition

The SLU researchers see three main problems with EU’s definition:

  1. Terminological confusion will arise between academia, industry and policy makers due to the longstanding, strong tradition within the scientific community to use the term biological control exclusively for the use of living agents, including viruses.
  2. It can aggravate the regulatory confusion and ultimately slow down the registration processes and new market introductions, since it incorrectly implicates that non-living nature-based substances can be evaluated in similar ways as living biocontrol agents. Moreover, the regulatory situation is already complicated since unlike the microbial biocontrol agents, invertebrate biocontrol agents fall outside pesticide regulations and rules vary among countries.
  3. Confusion related to the implementation of control methods in practical plant protection, as living agents provide very different challenges and opportunities compared to non-living substances. Both living agents and non-living substances are central components of integrated pest management, but different fields of science and expertise are needed to understand how to optimize their effects and assess their safety.

– We therefore argue that the European Commission should seize this opportunity to provide a clear framework on the use of biological control. This should be done by adopting the established scientific definition of biological control, i.e., the use of living agents to combat pests and pathogens, says Magnus Karlsson.

The bioprotection umbrella

Non-living substances derived from nature can instead be termed nature-based substances. Together with the biocontrol agents, they can be classified under the bioprotection umbrella. Lumping living agents with non-living substances (although of biological origin) in the definition of biological control in the new regulation for sustainable use of plant protection products is not only a matter of terminology.

– We fear that it can lead to big confusion regarding how to optimize evaluations of new agents and substances. Adopting clear and scientifically correct definitions of biological control, nature-based substances and bioprotection is crucial, says Mattias Jonsson.

– We firmly believe that this will facilitate the implementation of bioprotection agents, biological or nature-based, for effective and sustainable future plant protection strategies, says Maria Viketoft.

The Bioprotection umbrella, covering living biocontrol agents and non-living, nature-based, substances. Either class can provide potent protection against pests and pathogens, but it is important to maintain a clear conceptual boundary between them for scientific and regulatory reasons. Illustration: Cajsa Lithell.